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  • Stage SistersGemma Bellincioni’s Violetta and Eleonora Duse’s Margherita
  • Annamaria Cecconi (bio)
    Translated by Hero Lotti (bio)

Gemma Bellincioni, the “Duse of Opera”

In October 1892, just months after Eleonora Duse’s success in La Dame aux Camélias, Cavalleria Rusticana also opened in Vienna. The enthusiastic audience coined the sobriquet “Duse of Opera” for the singer Gemma Bellincioni, a tribute to her excellence in musical and acting performance. In the late nineteenth century a new generation of Italian actors, the so-called grande attore, moved toward their own dramaturgy, manipulating characters according to their perception and the anti-Romantic naturalistic canon. The result was a creative performance that rewrote the text by means of their authorial voice.1 Thus the player became de facto a “proto-director,” though the professional director did not emerge until the twentieth century. In this article I use conceptual strategies adopted in current Italian feminist studies on actresses to study opera singers, thus moving from theatrology to gender musicology.2 Investigating the relationship between the performers of the two stages, theater and opera, opens new perspectives and in particular gives a more complex definition of the abused classification singing actress, so often ascribed to singers with outstanding acting abilities. In the case of Bellincioni, we could better use Rodolfo Celletti’s definition vocal actress.3 [End Page 54]

Today, 150 years after her birth, there are no monographs or recent studies on Gemma Bellincioni (1864– 1950), a great international diva.4 Bellincioni occupies an important place in the history of female opera singers as the favorite diva of Verismo composers (Mascagni, Giordano, Tasca, Smareglia). She was an artist who steered her career in a deliberate and modern fashion, attentive to the evolution of the opera business and incessantly searching for new characters and new artistic experiences, including cinematic direction. Bellincioni deservedly belongs to the star system of the period, as the novel, Vittorina, probably written by a ghost writer to exploit her fame, shows.5 At forty years of age she boldly concluded her career in the role of Strauss’s first Italian Salome.

The actress Adelaide Ristori (1822– 1906) had been largely inspired by opera heroines in the choice of her repertoire; however, at the end of the century, the arrival of stage personalities such as Duse and Bernhardt reversed such influence, moving the most receptive opera singers to personify the singing actress. A list of the roles Bellincioni premiered places her in direct contact with the repertoire of the young Duse. However, there is no evidence (so far) of a personal relationship between the two divas, not even through the poet Gabriele D’Annunzio, Duse’s lover, who probably also had a love affair with the celebrated singer in June 1903 and with her daughter Bianca in 1921.6 In the words of Teresa Sormanni Rasi, a theater guest of Duse, there had been one meeting around 1892 or 1893: “We received this telegram: ‘I have a magnificent box for the magnificent Bellincioni.’ The two ladies presented each other with flowers.”7

The Saddened Camellias

Traviata was Bellincioni’s recognized pièce de résistance. The renown of her interpretation led Sarah Bernhardt in Paris in 1900 to alternate between performances of Sarah/Marguerite and Gemma/Violetta, further confirmation that the singer ought to be included as the third figure of a triad comprising the most [End Page 55] celebrated interpreters of the Dumasian role.8 Recent publications by Simona Brunetti and Donatella Orecchia, who have analyzed Duse’s interpretation of La signora dalle camelie, allow us to narrow the comparison to the two artists Duse and Bellincioni. In what measure was Bellincioni’s Violetta, highly acclaimed by European and Latin American audiences for three decades from the 1890s to the 1920s, indebted to Duse’s Margherita?9 And since Italian audiences found “Violetta’s camellias saddened” over the course of the singer’s career, can we note an analogous evolution in the actress’s portrayal of the Dumasian heroine?10

I intend to reconstruct the vocal and gestural performances of the singer at the Italian productions for which I have been able to trace documentary evidence. I believe that...


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